The sacrifice of hundreds of men on board the SS Mendi when the vessel sank on the morning of 21 February 1917 will never be forgotten.
More than a century later, the tragedy forms an integral part of South Africa’s history – it’s embedded in the school curriculum and is the subject of modern-day literature, drama, art and poetry.
This was the message the City of Cape Town deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, shared with guests attending the annual SS Mendi commemoration parade. The commemoration was held in honour of the 616 men who lost their lives when the steam ship was struck by a large cargo ship, the SS Daro, in the English Channel 103 years ago.
Neilson delivered the keynote address at the annual memorial, held on Sunday, 1 March. The commemoration was hosted by the South African Gunners’ Association at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) lower campus – the site where the men spent their last night on South African soil – now one of several SS Mendi memorials around the country.
The men represented the 5th battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps and were en route to Europe to support the war effort.
“It took decades … for the men who perished … to receive the recognition they deserved.”
“Many [of the men] had signed up [to support the war effort] in the hope that this would pave the way towards greater political rights back home. Sadly, this proved not to be the case,” Neilson said.
“It took decades before those hopes came to fruition and for the men who perished in the icy waters to receive the recognition they deserved.”
Respect was paid to the 616 men who died on the SS Mendi. The memorial, situated on UCT's lower campus, was erected in memory of their courage in the face of death.
A lasting legacy
Addressing dignitaries, including UCT’s chief operating officer, Dr Reno Morar; senior members of the South African National Defence Force; UCT students; and members of the public, Neilson said that for a long time, the role and contribution of the men who perished on board the ship had been “erased from history books”.
“However, South Africa’s transition to democracy allowed for the stories and voices that had been silenced for so long to be heard again,” he said.
“South Africa’s transition to democracy allowed for the stories and voices that had been silenced for so long to be heard again.”
“Today we honour their memory and sacrifice [in] various ways to ensure their legacy is not forgotten.”
He described the tragedy as a “poignant” part of history and encouraged guests to use the memorial as an opportunity to reflect on the lives cut short and the “futures denied” following the tragedy, and to be reminded about the “truly horrific nature of war and the destruction and loss it causes”.
“In recalling the horrors of war, let us be inspired to cherish and nurture peace, and in rectifying the mistakes of the past, let us heal old wounds and look forward together to a better future.”
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